NEW YORK — Six weeks and 50 witnesses later, R. Kelly’s criminal trial is nearing its end.
The trial has been long and, at times, monotonous since its start date in mid-August. The prosecution’s witness list was thorough, with 45 people taking the stand — including eight former employees of Kelly’s and 11 accusers, six of whom were underage when the singer allegedly abused them. The defense called only five witnesses, including Kelly’s former security guard and accountant. Much of the defense witnesses’ testimony, however, seemed to fall apart under cross-examination.
Kelly, 54, is facing one count of racketeering and eight counts of violating the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting individuals across state lines for the purpose of prostitution. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. The R&B singer faces between 10 years in prison and a life sentence if convicted on all nine charges.
The racketeering charge is at the heart of the government’s case against the R&B singer. The charge is an unusual approach to Kelly’s alleged crimes, but it does have some precedent: In 2019, Keith Raniere, the head of a cult-like sex group named NXIVM, was found guilty of racketeering — for crimes similar to those Kelly is accused of — and sentenced to 120 years in prison.
Prosecutors charged Kelly with racketeering in hopes of proving that the singer and his entourage — including managers, bodyguards, personal assistants and drivers — acted like a criminal enterprise that used the singer’s fame and power to recruit women and girls so that Kelly could abuse them, create sexual abuse images and enslave women across the country.
The R&B singer went on trial in 2008 in Chicago over similar accusations of child sexual abuse but was acquitted on all charges. The New York trial is only the first of his upcoming court battles. Kelly is also facing several other sexual abuse charges in Chicago that are expected to go to trial sometime next year.
“This case is about a predator,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez told the jury of seven men and five women during opening statements last month. “A man who, for decades, used his fame, popularity and network of people at his disposal to target, groom and exploit young girls, boys and women for his own sexual gratification.”
The prosecution started out on a strong note, with searing testimony from several Jane Does and two John Does. However, the prosecution’s last witness, an expert in domestic and sexual violence who explained to jurors why victims would stay or return to their abusers after the abuse, didn’t seem to pack the punch prosecutors were looking for.
“This case is about a predator. A man who, for decades, used his fame, popularity and network of people at his disposal to target, groom and exploit young girls, boys and women for his own sexual gratification.”
It’s been somewhat difficult to cover the trial with limited access to the actual courtroom. The press and public have been relegated to an overflow room down the hall from the actual proceedings where they can watch the trial on two TV screens.
Due to COVID-19 precautions, jurors sit in the courtroom off-screen, which makes it impossible for reporters to see how they react to certain evidence and witness testimony. Everyone in the actual courtroom is also required to wear face masks if they’re not speaking during the proceedings. This includes Kelly himself, which makes it nearly impossible to read his reaction to testimony.
U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly said she implemented the restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, although other recent trials in New York have permitted press and public access to the courtroom.
Only eight people from the public have been allowed to sit in the overflow room every day with the press. Many are supporters of Kelly who believe that many, if not all, of the alleged victims are lying on the stand.
“Them hoes is lying,” a supporter named Mike, who’s been attending the trial, told HuffPost during a break from court. “As his Black American brothers and sisters, we believe that he’s innocent.”
During the trial, the defense team sometimes seemed like they were playing catch-up, despite having nearly two years to prepare. Two of Kelly’s main attorneys did step away from the case a few months before the trial began. Defense attorney Deveraux Cannick, who stepped in shortly before the trial started, questioned many of the prosecution’s witnesses in a style seen often in racketeering or RICO cases: He repeatedly tried to confuse the witness and catch them in lies.
While this worked with some witnesses, including one of Kelly’s former assistants and a former audio engineer, it felt harsh when he used the tactic on the young Jane Does who described graphic stories of physical and sexual abuse. But, again, reporters were unable to see how the jury reacted to such testimony and cross-examination.
The defense argued in closing statements that much of what the jury heard during trial was simply the “playboy lifestyle” and dismissed Kelly’s accusers as liars, stalkers and groupies.
“He [Kelly] grew to international fame and international superstardom. And after a point in time, he started living that lifestyle… He started living a playboy lifestyle,” Cannick said during the defense’s closing arguments on Thursday. “Where is the crime in that?”
U.S. Assistant Attorney Nadia Shihata ended on a powerful note Friday morning before jury instructions were given out. “The defendant’s victims aren’t groupies or gold diggers, they’re human beings,” she told the jury. “They’re daughters, sisters, some of them are now mothers, and their lives matter.”
Jury deliberations are likely to begin Friday afternoon after Donnelly finishes giving instructions on the charges. A verdict could come down any time after that.
If you haven’t been following the case, here are a few highlights from Kelly’s criminal trial over the past six weeks:
A Jane Doe recalled walking in on R. Kelly sexually assaulting an underage Aaliyah.
One Jane Doe, referred to in court as Angela, testified toward the end of the trial that she walked in on Kelly sexually assaulting Aaliyah when the late singer was just 13 or 14 years old. Angela testified that she walked into a bedroom at the back of Kelly’s tour bus and “saw Robert and Aaliyah in a sexual situation,” adding that she saw Kelly’s head between the underaged singer’s legs while he was on her knees. She said she immediately closed the door behind her and never told Kelly what she saw.
Angela, who was a backup dancer for Kelly, testified that Kelly was sexually abusing her too, starting in the early 1990s when Angela was 14 or 15 years old.
Aaliyah is the only Jane Doe included in charging documents who did not testify at Kelly’s trial because she died in a plane crash in 2001. The late singer is central to the criminal case because Kelly married Aaliyah in 1994 when he was 27 and she was just 15 years old in order for her to get an abortion.
Kelly’s former tour manager, Demetrius Smith, testified earlier in the trial that he bribed someone he knew at a welfare office to obtain a fake ID for Aaliyah to marry Kelly. Another Jane Doe who testified early on in the trial also testified that Kelly told her and a few other women at the time that he married Aaliyah so she could get an abortion.
Eight Jane Does gave searing testimony on alleged beatings, statutory rape and forced abortions.
The testimonies from Kelly’s accusers were, by far, the most impactful part of the trial. The six women at the center of the government’s case were referred to as Stephanie, Sonja, Jerhonda, Jane, Faith and Aaliyah, with the first five taking the stand to testify about the alleged physical, sexual and emotional abuse they endured at the hands of the R&B singer. Three of them were minors when Kelly allegedly started to abuse them.
Many of the accusers described a terrifying environment in which Kelly controlled their every move. Several women said Kelly implemented strict rules that included calling him “Daddy,” being subjected to physical beatings, and controlling the clothes they wore, what they ate and where they were allowed to travel. One Jane Doe said Kelly punished her by making her smear her own feces on her face and in her mouth as he recorded her.
Several women and former employees of Kelly testified that he forbade his alleged victims from looking at other men, forcing them to face the wall when another man was in the room. Almost all of the accusers testified that Kelly recorded their sexual abuse without their consent and often forced them to have sex with other people. Three accusers were minors when Kelly allegedly recorded himself abusing them, which constitutes child pornography.
“He could put the fear of God in me very quickly,” one alleged victim, Stephanie, described Kelly during her testimony.
The most horrific testimony came from another alleged victim, referred to as Jane. In 2015, Jane, then 17, thought she was pregnant. Kelly wanted her to get an abortion, she said, but not just because she was under the legal age of consent. “He said he would want me to get an abortion so I could keep my body tight,” she testified. Jane eventually did get pregnant in 2017, and Kelly forced her to get an abortion, she alleged on the stand.
Two John Does also testified.
Two male accusers also testified at Kelly’s trial, bringing the total accusers who testified to 11. A man referred to as Louis took the stand midway through the trial and testified that Kelly abused him by performing oral sex on him when he was a minor, and later forced him to have sex with other women. Louis testified that Kelly routinely recorded the abuse.
“‘You ever had a fantasy about you and a man?’ I said ‘no,’” Louis recalled Kelly asking him around 2006. “He crawled down on his knees to me and proceeded to give me oral sex.” Louis said he told Kelly he didn’t like it and the singer stopped.
Unlike most of the Jane Does, Louis testified that Kelly never physically abused him. It was also unclear if Louis still supports Kelly or if they have a relationship today. Louis was charged in 2020 with attempted bribery for trying to pay off a potential witness in the criminal case against Kelly.
Another man, referred to as Alex, testified that he met Kelly when he was 16 or 17 years old through Louis, his high school friend. Alex said that he began having sexual encounters with Kelly and others at Kelly’s direction at the age of 20.
At one point, R. Kelly started vibing to his own music in court.
As part of their evidence, prosecutors showed a video of a Jane Doe referred to as Faith with Kelly in a Los Angeles studio around 2018. Although the video was not shown to the press, the audio was played.
The video, which showed Kelly instructing Faith how to sit and how to speak to him, also had Kelly’s music playing in the background. While the courtroom was watching the video and listening to the music, Kelly started vibing to his own music. He began nodding his head and playing air piano with one hand while sitting next to his defense attorneys.
A former employee tried to address R. Kelly from the stand.
Nicholas Williams, who worked for Kelly as an intern for a year around 2003, was called as a witness for the prosecution midway through the trial. Williams testified that he interacted with Kelly daily when he worked at the singer’s Chicago Tracks studio, often answering phones as part of his work duties.
He testified that Andrea Kelly, Kelly’s wife at the time, had the code name “Important” and Williams was tasked with using the code name to give Kelly a heads-up that his wife was on the way so that Kelly could ensure none of the young women he was allegedly abusing were around. Williams also testified that Kelly “was angry all the time” and that he eventually left because it was such a toxic workplace.
“Many of the things I was required to do… they made me uncomfortable,” Williams testified. Kelly could be seen shaking his head throughout Williams’ testimony.
What was once a strong witness for the prosecution quickly unraveled, however. During direct examination, the prosecution asked how Williams was treated as an employee when the former intern became upset
“I’ve been waiting to look him [Kelly] in the eye―” Williams said, addressing Kelly from the stand before the judge quickly interrupted him and Cannick loudly objected. After Donnelly instructed jurors to disregard Williams’ last statement, the witness again interjected and asked: “Can I just say something?” to which Donnelly replied no and admonished him again.
The interaction was over in a couple of seconds, but it was definitely one of the more dramatic moments that played out in court.
Kelly was accused of knowingly giving herpes to four Jane Does.
Four women accused Kelly of knowingly engaging in unprotected sex with them and giving them herpes, which is an incurable sexually transmitted disease. One of the six main alleged victims, Faith, sued Kelly in 2018 for allegedly giving her herpes, and Kelly’s legal team threatened to publish naked photos of the young woman if she continued with the lawsuit.
Another main alleged victim, Jane, alleged during her testimony that Kelly gave her genital herpes when she was 17 years old. Jane said the pain was so bad from the first flare-up that she wasn’t able to walk. She said she continued to have “very intense” pain during sexual intercourse, which prevented her from having sex with Kelly sometimes. “I think your pussy is broken,” Jane said Kelly told her at the time.
R. Kelly allegedly likened himself to musician Jerry Lee Lewis, who married a 13-year-old.
During the trial, a Jane Doe referred to as Stephanie recalled a time when Kelly likened himself to Jerry Lee Lewis, a musician who married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown, in 1957. Stephanie testified that she was out to dinner with Kelly and two local rappers when Kelly randomly started talking about why he should be able to date minors.
“He [Kelly] mentioned that he likes young girls and that people make such a big deal of it. ‘Even look at Jerry Lee Lewis, he’s a genius and I’m a genius. We should be allowed to do whatever we want. Look at what we give the world,’” Stephanie said.
Brown later divorced Lewis, alleging that she had been “subject to every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable.”
Taryn Finley contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said Nicholas Williams addressed R. Kelly from the stand during cross-examination. It was during direct examination.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.